Several centuries after the birth of Jesus, Syrian scribes offered these names for the wise men who came to Bethlehem -- King Hormizdah of Persia, King Yazdegerd of Saba and King Perozadh of Shelba.
A late 5th century Alexandria chronicle called them Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa, which evolved into the familiar Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian commissioned a Ravenna mosaic in what is now called the Basilica of St. Apollinaris, showing three magi wearing what appears to be Persian clothing, and carrying gifts.
Over the centuries, these images shaped countless Nativity scenes, church pageants and carols, noted Father Dwight Longenecker, author of a new book, "Mystery of the Magi." He is an Oxford University graduate and former Anglican priest who, after converting to Roman Catholicism with his wife and children, now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C.
This weekend, worshipers celebrating the Epiphany feast -- which closes the 12-day Christmas season -- will hear what the Gospel of St. Matthew says about all this. Comparing the simple biblical account with many colorful "Three Kings" stories, Longenecker explained, is rather like comparing the humble, pious, 3rd century St. Nicholas of Myra with the Santa Claus found in Hollywood flicks.
"I don't think we need to give up Nativity plays and singing 'We Three Kings of Orient Are.' But I do think we need to realize that these are elaborations on the historical story from Matthew's Gospel. They're delightful, but they are related to the facts of Jesus' birth in the same way the Broadway musical Camelot is related to scholars writing about the historical King Arthur," he said.
"Our culture has … stuck the magi in the same sentimental, magical Christmas bundle with Santa and a bunch of flying reindeer. In this story the magi are wise men -- rather like Gandalf and Dumbledore -- who make a 'When You Wish Upon A Star' journey across the desert. It's nice, but it isn't biblical."
The Matthew account begins: "When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.' "
Later there are more details. After facing Herod, the magi were "overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh."
Anyone paying close attention may wonder: Wait, how many magi? Matthew doesn't say. What were their names? Ditto. Where are their camels? Were they kings from a distant land, like Persia? The biblical account cites "the east," which to early Christians in Judea and Syria would have been northern Arabia, perhaps Petra and the Nabatean civilization -- with its close ties to Jewish culture and trade.
By the time the magi arrived the shepherds are gone and the holy family is in a house, not a cave. Jesus is a "child," almost certainly a toddler, not a newborn.
In other words, explained Longenecker, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman world and beyond, St. Matthew's simple account of the magi -- to quote The Lord of the Rings epic -- "became legend and the legend became myth."
That doesn't mean, he stressed, that key details in the Gospel of Matthew cannot be defended as true, especially in light of decades of new research. This debate matters because several generations of mainstream Christian leaders and clergy have been taught, in seminary, that key parts of the Nativity narrative are pious myths -- period.
The bottom line, for Longenecker: The details of the Nativity passages matter "because history matters, and history matters because truth matters." It matters whether clergy believe what they are saying during Christmas and Epiphany.
"At best, lots of people say this is a parable," he said. "They say we're all supposed to go on a mysterious journey of faith through the darkness and find our inner light, or something like that. That basically means it's all a myth. ... That's not a good way to talk about details in an important passage of scripture."